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Athletes walk onto College Hill

While recruited players get more attention, walk-ons add perspective, depth to athletics department

Two days ago, high school athletes around the world fulfilled their dreams of signing to competitive colleges. It was National Signing Day.

For athletes fortunate enough to be recruited, a whole high school may gather while local TV crews wait to get the breaking news of a student’s choice between the local college and the outsider school looking to snap up a highly touted recruit.

For Ivy Leaguers — who do not sign National Letters of Intent and receive no scholarship money due to an Ivy-wide policy — National Signing Day comes with exponentially less fanfare and certainty.

For future walk-ons — those admitted to college for academics, but still looking to play varsity sports — finding a varsity spot can entail several months of impending uncertainty about both their academic and athletic futures.

Getting admitted

“It was really stressful for me,” said Dara Wais ’18, who was a very late recruit to the women’s hockey team under former Head Coach Amy Bourbeau.

“Honestly, I was nervous until I got the admission decision from Brown,” she said. “I knew there was a chance that I wouldn’t be playing hockey, which was really stressful to me because I love it.”

Jimmy Grossman ’18 was only a freshman in high school when a player on his high school baseball team signed his likely letter to play baseball at Columbia. But when it was Grossman’s turn to look at collegiate baseball — especially at the Division I level — the mood was less celebratory.

“I had sent out a lot of emails to Ivy schools, but there wasn’t much interest back,” Grossman said.

“I went through the recruiting process with (the Massachusetts Institute of Technology); I visited campus; I really liked the coaches, so the coaches were able to support my application.”

But with Division III schools like MIT, “support” is all coaches can offer. Coaches at Division I schools like Brown have much more pull in the admission process. And when Grossman was deferred from MIT during the early decision round and later rejected, a dream of playing collegiate baseball started slipping away.

“When I got into Brown, there was the possibility of giving up baseball, something I’ve played ever since I was five,” he said. “But I knew there was a chance I could play, so I decided to take it.”

Carly Kabelac ’19 — a first-year on the field hockey team — had a similar experience. Kabelac quit her regional club team after the option of playing for MIT “didn’t work out.”

“I came to grips with the fact that I would not be playing field hockey anymore,” Kabelac said. “But I got into Brown and talked to the coaches and decided to give it a shot.”

Getting on the team

After acceptance, the initial journey is far from over for walk-ons: While recruited players head to their first practices as solidified members of their teams, walk-ons head to campus not knowing if they’ll ever take the field.

Grossman was invited to a short tryout, which he described as a “very intense moment.”

Even walk-ons skilled enough to play on a team may be cut during tryouts simply because there is not space for them on the team’s roster, said baseball team Head Coach Grant Achilles.

In Grossman’s case, he was called into a meeting the next day. “I wasn’t on the team instantly,” he said. “But I kept practicing with them, and then eventually I started to attend the morning lifts, and then from there I just became a member of the team.”

“He really earned his spot on the team,” Achilles said. “In Jimmy’s case, he worked hard, showed up every day for everything.”

For a fall sport, the time frame is significantly smaller: Kabelac attended camp in the summer — the first time the coaches got to see her play — and was invited to be a full member of the team for the fall season.

“The beginning of the year was really stressful. I had no idea what to expect coming in,” she said. “The other freshmen had other experiences playing with each other, so I had to get comfortable in that sort of environment.”

When Wais stepped onto campus her freshman year, she was already on the hockey team. But coming into her initial practices with the team, she was still a new face in the locker room.

“Amy said that I was a part of the team when I got to campus,” Wais said. “I was a little nervous because I didn’t know if the team was told about my recruiting situation or how they would respond.”

Recruited teammates “were a lot more confident heading into the year,” Wais added. “When I came here, I definitely wasn’t as confident as people who were recruited.”

Getting on the field

For walk-ons — especially first-years and sophomores — the on-the-field positives are usually few and far between, as the recruited players get first priority for playing time.

“I think every freshman on every varsity team (who) doesn’t start has the same feeling of getting discouraged that they’re not playing,” Grossman said. “But coming from my perspective, I really understood that everyone has their role.”

Grossman only batted once in a game last season and made only one play as a second baseman, but he contributes to the team in other ways.

“I compete with these guys in practice every day — that’s how I can make the team better,” Grossman said. 

“Walk-ons are crucial to the team in terms of how they add to the culture,” Achilles said. “They can provide a degree of depth, but also make it evident to other players that they should not take (being on the team) for granted. It provides a different glimpse for other players; this guy had to work to earn everything — every piece of equipment — that he got.”

Achilles himself has a special perspective when it comes to walk-ons. His brother, Todd Achilles, was a walk-on to the Wake Forest baseball team in fall 1998. The coach credited his brother with “opening the door” to allow him to play baseball there.

Kabelac appeared in two games as a rookie in the latter stages of one-sided contests.

“Heading into the year, I had no expectations,” she said. “I wasn’t expecting to play at all. But moving forward with the team, I’ll have higher expectations.”

Wais did not see a lot of ice time in her first season with Bourbeau.

“We had 21 girls and only 20 dressed, so when it came down to it — unless someone was hurt — it was always me that didn’t dress,” Wais said.

But Wais has had a lot more ice time in games this year, picking up three times as many shots as she had last year.

“I like how Coach Kenneally has done it,” Wais said. “Because last year I would sit on the bench and not get a shift, but … this year I’ve gotten a good amount of shifts to try and get the feel of (college hockey).”

Getting off the field

Outside of their sports, walk-ons are typically involved with the social lives of student athletes and other students.

“Being a walk-on definitely gives you the best perspective of Brown social life,” Grossman said. “I’m very good friends with some non-athletes but also the guys on my team, and I see that a lot of athletes are friends with themselves, and I’m lucky enough to experience both sides of that.”

“I was really interested in Brown as a school,” Wais said, rather than just being interested in the hockey team. “So I’ve tried to meet other people and do other things outside of hockey. All the things that Brown has to offer might not be as important to other athletes, but being more of a walk-on makes me want to experience those other things even more.”

Achilles gave a lot of credit to Grossman as a student: “It’s extremely impressive that a guy like Jimmy got into the school on his own. He wanted to play baseball, too, and I definitely have an appreciation for how difficult it is to be both an athlete and a student.”

Joining a team after a recruiting process may also shape the commitment walk-ons bring to their teams. For some, walking on is a reminder of how valuable playing on the varsity team can be.

“Talking to some people that have quit hockey, the difference is that a lot of people lose the passion,” Wais said. “It becomes more of a job, more of just something to do for them. For me, I still have that passion. I still love it.”

But for now, walk-ons across Brown are heading to their locker rooms, ready to take on the next season wearing a uniform for the Bears.

“In a sense, I wasn’t supposed to be on this team,” Grossman said. “I wasn’t part of (the team’s) plan for a while. But I’ve still enjoyed every minute that I’ve had with those guys. It’s not something that everyone gets to experience.”

“When it’s tough, it’s still like ‘How can you complain? You’re still playing hockey at an Ivy League school,’” Wais said. “It’s a blast. It’s living the dream.”


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